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Hooked on Heroin: Why it's deadlier than ever in the D.C. suburbs

Heroin packets, syringe and a spoon. (AP file photo)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) – For many who become addicted to heroin, it was not something they ever expected. But once they start using, it becomes more difficult to stop than they ever could have expected.

The epidemic is hitting the D.C. region in a profound way. According to the Virginia Office of the Medical Examiner, heroin overdose deaths are up 164 percent in Northern Virginia between 2011 and 2013. Jon Miller says he could have been one of those statistics, until he got help. But it wasn’t easy.

"It's a very warm, comforting effect", says Miller of taking heroin. "It's a feeling of everything in the world is OK. The bombs would be going off left and right, and you'd be OK."

Despite growing up in an upper middle-class home in Great Falls and attending the University of Virginia, Miller was no stranger to hard drugs. In his 20s, he developed a taste for psychedelics, then cocaine. Around age 30, he moved on to heroin, and it took hold with a vengeance.

"Sometimes, it wasn't even because I wanted to get high anymore. It was because I didn't want to feel miserable … crawling of the skin, muscle aches, stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea … I told myself I'm in too deep. I need help at this point in time,” he said.

But so many addicts don't get help, and the results are tragic. According to a study published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin overdose deaths in 28 states, including Virginia, doubled between 2010 and 2012.

"It just takes one time to get hooked or that one time to overdose,” according to Virginia State Police Special Agent Tom Murphy. "People lose everything. They lose their homes, their jobs, their loved ones. It's a horrific drug that we're battling.”

Murphy coordinates the Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force, covering areas like Fauquier and Culpeper counties. He says the heroin is coming in from Afghanistan, then being funneled through major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, a regional hub. It has trickled down to small town Virginia in a big way, where people are shooting, snorting, or smoking a brand of heroin that's nothing like it was 20 to 30 years ago.

"Heroin was typically 5 percent to 10 percent pure. Today, heroin is 40 percent to 65 percent pure. The problem with that, obviously, is the more pure or potent the drug is the more likely you are to overdose,” Murphy said.

The epidemic is hitting young people at an alarming rate, with medical experts estimating that a typical heroin addict starts using at age 23.

"You will hear from individuals that they're learning from kids younger than them,” says Debby Taylor, vice president of Phoenix House, an addiction treatment center in Arlington.

Though it takes time and a lot of effort, Taylor says addicts can recover.

“People get better. Treatment works,” she said.

After years of addiction, Jon Miller is on the road to recovery.

Now six months clean, he says, "Life is a gift, and I did not treat it that way for many years.”

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